Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: My Damaged Darlings

Alert readers might note I posted over on the Macmillan New Writers site about my inability/reluctance to talk about Works In Progress. Sadly, that doesn't apply to my Works Out of Progress. Those, I can inflict upon you: here is my so-far-unpublished oeuvre. (Or does that mean "egg?")

This is sort of like death, except that it's my life (2002-present) flashing before your eyes. Be grateful it isn't yours.

Things Unseen. My first novel. An "epistomological mystery" featuring a recalcitrant detective whose unconventional, estranged sister has been murdered out in the California desert. The protagonist is Walker Clayborne, PhD in Geology (can you get any more mundane? Can you get any more obvious with the name and profession?) who is the most rational and reductionist of characters until he encounters unlikely facts he can't explain away. Includes side trips into quantum physics, psychedelic drugs, psychic phenomena, eccentric physicists, Bikers for Jesus, cult murders, and--well, you know the sort of thing.

Tomorrowville. The name of this blog, in case you hadn't noticed. I had to figure out how to characterize this puppy in one line (since I live near Hollywood), and the logline is "A grim cyberpunk political romantic comedy." Since that's the most-requested category when folks wander into a bookstore, offers of wealth and fame came flooding in from every corner of the globe.

Actually, my friends and writing pals were sure this one was going to be my debut breakout bestseller (probably because it was so much less baroque and so much more streamlined than Things Unseen.)

Okay, no wealth and no fame, but any number of agents and editors sat with this for longer than I care to remember. And some of them even liked it. They just couldn't figure out what the hell to do with it--witness some of the responses it garnered. Probably publishable twenty years ago or ten years from now (unless reality catches up with it, which is a real danger). Maybe even publishable now, but surely not as a follow-on to Shock and Awe.

A Map of the Edge. Quite possibly my best prose. After reading the first three chapters, one agent who'd read Things Unseen and passed on it called me and asked to see the full manscript as well as to see Things Unseen again, "as I didn't realize when I read it that you were a literary writer."*

Or perhaps she meant she didn't realize I was a "literate" writer.

*She's one of the ones I never got back to with either manuscript, as I was too deep into the next novel to revise...Sorry, Donna, I really am.

As it turns out, I have a handful of rejections from agents who loved the first hundred-fifty pages and then lost the thread. And I had many invitations to resubmit again if I rewrote--but no one could put their finger on what went wrong. "Too much sex and too many drugs--not that I object to either in principle..." one agent wrote me. Though he didn't amuse me nearly as much as the agent--an agent I greatly admire, by the way--advised me that he'd read my "Young Adult Novel" (the protagonist is 15, but I surely wasn't aiming at a readership under 18, as I didn't fancy a jail term), and while he admired the writing and felt quite moved by the characters, he couldn't think of a single editor who would be interested in taking on this book.

MOTE, as it's known to cool people (ie, me and a couple of close friends), is a slightly demented coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old boy in California circa 1969. Sex. Drugs. Ultimately murder. I wear as a badge of honor the fact that a novelist running a workshop I attended said of the first chapter, "This might be the best sex scene I've ever read." Cool. Can we sell the first chapter?

In other words, unpublishable. And, though there's still several agents who said, back in 2004, that they'd love to have first look at any rewrites, I suspect they aren't pining away by their mailboxes waiting for it.

One interesting response, though, came from an agent who was the son of a famous agent, starting up at his dad's agency. He told me my characters were too generic and my writing wasn't "tight enough" for his standards. All of which might be true. But his biggest sales success to date at that time was a novel written by a former professional wrestler. Not that I'm saying professional wrestlers can't set the literary bar for the rest of us...

Smite the Waters. Oops. That's the one that got published: Shock and Awe.

Earthly Vessels. Too cool for mere mortals. The protagonist is a guy who discovers he is the incarnation of a sort of god, and suddenly everyone is trying to kill him or form alliances with him--except he isn't the Chosen One, he isn't the god everyone is expecting, but rather a sort of screwup in the Cosmic Switchboard. In fact, he is the embodiment of Cosmic Screwup, which, as it happens, needs its own avatar.

I've never had this much fun writing a book. It's third-person multi-POV, but there's also a possibly unreliable omniscient narrator who leans into the story whenever he pleases and lectures the reader (possibly unreliably) on the nature of the universe. What really happens with reincarnation. Why the material plane is special. How erections work and how they relate to what you ate for breakfast. What really lives in the sewers of Rome. Different strategies for expanding the human lifspan. Real estate values. How to attract bees. The honest truth about that sort of stuff...maybe.

These books might not be damaged per se. But none of them are anything a fan of Shock and Awe would expect to read after picking up a book with my name on it.

Bottom line? I've had a lot of fun, and even believe I've, however accidentally, perpetrated some decent work. But in marketability I an idiot, or what? (You need not answer that. The "or what" possibilities are even more disturbing than just wearing an "idiot" sign.)


Tim Stretton said...

I have to say there's nothing here I wouldn't want to read--but I certainly wouldn't want to be your agent!

It's a sad truth that with the publishing industry regarding writers as "brands", it's hard to build a career on eclecticism these days. Books like the ones you've described here have been successful: just not all by the same author...

But for those of who aren't going to make a living from writing--let's face it, that's most of us--isn't it really about having fun anyway? (And by having fun, I don't mean amateurish self-indulgence: I mean writing the best books you can possibly write, but only the ones you want to write).

David Isaak said...

"--but I certainly wouldn't want to be your agent!"

A sentiment I have often heard from agents themselves.

As to fun--sometimes it's fun, but many times I think it's only fun in comparison with not writing...

Roger Morris said...

They all sound great, David. And no you're not an idiot.

By the way, something weird came up on amazon that you may be able to explain - or not. I noticed that the paperback of Taking Comfort (not a real paperback like your new beauty, just the airside trade pb) was number 5 on amazon UK's technothriller chart. It's a subcategory of thriller, which is a subcategory of crime, which is a subcategory of... well, something else I think. So, that's very nice, and surprising, though certainly an anomaly, not least because TC is not at all a technothriller. It isn't is it? I mean, you should know, you international thriller writer, you.

David Isaak said...

"Taking Comfort" certainly has it's thrilling moments, and it opens a bit like a thriller--though a very literary sounding thriller! And the pace and stakes take a very surprising thriller-like turn toward the end.

But I admit the "techno" part confuses me. Though you do have some great technical descriptions (ad copy, actually) of potentially scary things like knives (Sabatier, if I recall), I didn't really feel you were getting highly techie about it. Though it's obvious that you could write techie any time you cared to.

But I still think it's great, as it may lead more people to the book, and I think they'll enjoy it even when it turns out not to be Tom Clancy. (Enjoy it more, if they have any brains.)

Now if you can just start promoting it as a romantic comedy, too...

Maybe you should join ITW!

Charles Lambert said...

I half agree with Tim. I'd read everything here and if I had to be anyone's agent I'd happily be yours (which is why, of course, I'll never be anyone's agent - surely no normal or moderately competent person would 'happily' be an agent - except mine, naturally... oh god, why did I start this? All I really want to do is read the sex scene...)

Jamie Ford said...

Wow, nice mix. You've been seriously prolific. There does seem to be a common thread, stylistically, between them. What made Shock and Awe sell? Was it just the more commercial of the bunch?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Charles--

Sorry. This is a family-values sort of blog, which means that I publish violence but not sex. I have a chastity ring to prove it.

David Isaak said...

"What made Shock and Awe sell? Was it just the more commercial of the bunch?"

You ask an interesting question, Jamie. And I'm not sure. Part of me thinks it's less quirky and easier to classify.

Part of me thinks it's because I took it to the UK, where fewer editors get tired lips from reading.

Part of me thinks it's Book Four Syndrome--a lot of writers seem to get published on their fourth novel (even if the earlier ones then go on to sell at a later date).

And part of me thinks they've let me slip through by mistake. Fortunately, it's very hard for anybody to unpublish a book.

Jake Jesson said...

Gotta go with "Or what", sorry. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

"A Map of the Edge" is possibly one of my favorite book titles, ever. As for what to try to get published next, I stick with my theory that you should go with something that people would not expect to read (people like [certain kinds of] surprises!), but shares strong points with S&A. ("Earthly Vessels", for example, has thriller elements a-plenty to it.)